Obama: Nation Must Answer ‘Hard Questions’

BY Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij  December 17, 2012 at 8:56 AM EST

Consoling a Grieving Town

President Obama attends Sunday’s vigil at Newtown High School in Connecticut for families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.

The Morning Line

“We as a nation, we are left with some hard questions.”

President Obama addressed some of those questions late Sunday at a vigil for the 26 victims of Friday’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., outlining his philosophy for action to prevent violence in the future.

It was, Mr. Obama noted in a voice heavy with emotion, the fourth time he had spoken before a grieving community “torn apart” by mass shootings. From his remarks:

[C]an we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

Mr. Obama spoke slowly, promising to use “whatever power this office holds” to “engage” the nation in an effort to prevent tragedies like what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change,” he said.

“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society,” Mr. Obama said. “But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.”

The president said the nation cannot accept these shootings as “routine.”

“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

His tone suggested urgency, and advocates of stricter gun control measures were saying after the address that they are hopeful action will indeed come from Washington. Critics pointed out that the president did not use the word “guns” in the speech, but his supporters said his message was clear: He won’t back away from this one.

On Friday, which Mr. Obama deemed the worst day of his time in office, the tearful president pointedly referenced daily gun violence in Chicago as well as the tragic shootings, saying it was time to “do something about it.”

At the service Sunday night, Mr. Obama read each victim’s name, his words punctuated frequently by audible sobs from the attendees in the auditorium.

Watch the president’s remarks at the vigil here or below:


The memorial service came after retiring Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent, called for a national commission on mass violence and as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said she will renew her legislation to reinstate the expired assault weapons ban.

“We’ve tried to take my bill from 1994 to 2004 and perfect it. … I think America is ready,” Feinstein said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” She added a note of confidence about its chance of passing: “It can be done.”

The NewsHour and NPR have been covering the tragedy in detail. On Friday, we examined school safety issues and the psychology of handling such difficult national moments, particularly when children are involved.

Hari Sreenivasan is on the ground in Newtown, talking with members of the community. In this dispatch, Hari notes the media frenzy and how many news outlets botched the facts. And he spoke with grieving residents as they learned the names of the victims. Hari also interviewed a former classmate of Lanza’s.

Watch his report on Monday’s NewsHour as we continue our in-depth look at the tragedy.

That will include the latest in the renewed push for gun control and reaction from Washington to Mr. Obama’s remarks.

We are hearing that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will mount a visible effort to pressure the federal government to act, starting with a 12:30 p.m. ET news conference at City Hall.

BOEHNER’S SHIFT

Even as Mr. Obama attempts to console the Newtown community and the nation as a whole, he still faces the challenge of working out a deal with House Speaker John Boehner to avert nearly $500 billion in automatic spending cuts and tax hikes at year’s end.

When Boehner left town last Thursday evening, it wasn’t clear if the weekend would yield much action on the fiscal cliff. But word broke Sunday that Boehner had put forward a fresh counteroffer on Friday that would allow the tax rates on people earning more than $1 million to increase.

With that change he set a new revenue target of $1 trillion in his proposal, up from $800 billion in his initial plan. The rest of the revenue generated would come from closing loopholes and capping deductions.

The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane detail what Boehner is asking for in return for backing off his opposition to raising tax rates:

In exchange for the higher rates for millionaires, Boehner is demanding changes to federal health and retirement programs, which are projected to be the biggest drivers of future federal borrowing. Boehner wants $1 trillion in total savings, starting with adoption of a less generous way of calculating inflation that would save $200 billion over the next decade — about two-thirds of it by reducing Social Security cost-of-living adjustments.

Obama has offered $600 billion in spending cuts, with $350 billion coming from health programs and none from Social Security. Many congressional Democrats adamantly oppose dragging the program into the year-end talks.

Still, if Republicans make an offer on higher tax revenue that Democrats consider big enough, senior Democrats have signaled that they are open to the change in how inflation is calculated for the tax code and other federal programs, known as chained CPI.

In another concession, Boehner reportedly agreed to push the fight over raising the debt ceiling off for another year. The country is set to hit its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit sometime in early 2013.

An aide to Boehner made clear Sunday that the speaker would continue to demand that any increase in the debt ceiling by matched by reductions in spending.

“Our position has not changed,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “Any debt limit increase would require cuts and reforms of a greater amount.”

The question remains whether Boehner can sell a plan with rate hikes and a debt-limit increase to House Republicans.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, could have trouble with some in his party. The Los Angeles Times looks at the fault lines forming on the Democratic side of the fiscal cliff debate.

DREAMERS DEFERRED

The Department of Homeland Security announced Friday that it had granted more than 100,000 young immigrants a temporary reprieve from deportation since August under its “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program.

Mr. Obama announced the policy after he was unable to work with Congress to pass the DREAM Act. Ray Suarez traveled to the state with the highest number of eligible applicants — California — to see how the program was working on the ground.

Watch Ray’s report here or below.


Don’t miss Katelyn Polantz’s story on how John Lennon laid the groundwork for the federal policy back in the 1970s here.

LINE ITEMS

  • South Carolina GOP Gov. Nikki Haley will announce Monday her choice for filling the seat left open by the surprise resignation of Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who will lead the Heritage Foundation.

  • The Boston Globe’s Bryan Bender profiles Sen. John Kerry’s international experience, as the president readies to nominate the Massachusetts Democrat to be secretary of Ssate.

  • Massachusetts residents are already getting robo-poll calls on a special election to replace Kerry once he is confirmed. Independent voters were asked on the calls (done through Democratic organizations) if they would vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries. The candidates named in our tipster’s call: Republicans Sen. Scott Brown and former Gov. Bill Weld, and Democrats Gov. Deval Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Rep. Mike Capuano and Vicki Kennedy, widow of late senator Edward M. Kennedy.

  • Roll Call’s Abby Livingston rounds up the possible candidates for that special election, and The Hill’s Alexander Bolton has one source speculating that former Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis could get the placeholder nod for an interim appointment.

  • President Obama tells Barbara Walters that the federal government won’t go after now-legal recreational marijuana use in Washington state and Colorado: “[Y]ou’ve seen the voters speak on this issue. It does not make sense, from a prioritization point of view, for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law, that’s legal.”

  • Recovering from a concussion she suffered after fainting and falling, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will not testify as planned on Capitol Hill about the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

  • Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talked with Esquire about what he’s learned.

  • ProPublica reports: In a confidential 2010 filing, Crossroads GPS — the dark money group that spent more than $70 million from anonymous donors on the 2012 election — told the Internal Revenue Service that its efforts would focus on public education, research and shaping legislation and policy.

  • Ryan Teague Beckwith has a legal primer in the San Jose Mercury News on how the Supreme Court might view the upcoming same-sex marriage cases.

  • Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Glenn Thrush have a new eBook on the 2012 campaign.

  • The first ad from the Fix the Debt campaign was released Friday.

  • Monday’s tidbit from NewsHour partner Face the Facts USA finds that the older we get, the more we drain Medicare: “Americans today live an average of four years longer compared to 1965, when Medicare was created.”

NEWSHOUR ROUNDUP

  • On Friday’s NewsHour, Mark Shields and David Brooks talked about the shooting in Newtown and the fiscal cliff. Watch here or below:


  • Our primer on the elections in Japan.

  • Colleen Shalby dives in to J.R.R. Tolkein’s world.

  • The latest in the PRI series on cancer abroad looks at use of morphine to aid pain relief.

TOP TWEETS

Elizabeth Summers contributed to this report.

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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers, @kpolantz, @indiefilmfan, @tiffanymullon, @dePeystah, @meenaganesan and @abbruns.